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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Orleans Dining: tout de suite in historic Algiers Point

All said, tout de suite seems to be

an organic centerpiece of what many consider

one of New Orleans’ most agreeable neighborhoods.

Now and then, with a soupcon of serendipity, I’ll stumble across a café or restaurant so precisely reflective of its location that I can’t help but wonder if the area surrounding it shaped its essence or the other way around.

Well, I’ve stumbled across such a place where I would never have thought to look. It’s a coffee shop named “tout de suite,” and it’s three blocks from the front door of The Sensible One’s and my part-time home/offices and full-time hideaway in New Orleans.

While New Orleans has often been cited as “the most European of American cities,” it has also been argued that New Orleans is not so much city at all, but rather a patchwork of interwoven villages. The most famous and oldest “village,” of course, is the French Quarter, the perimeter of which is rigidly defined by three streets and the Mississippi River.

Directly across the river from the French Quarter lies New Orleans’ second oldest village, Algiers Point, which was founded in 1719. The plat of land itself is more or less rectangular, roughly a mile across and a half-mile deep, and two of its four sides are nestled below the levee that kept the historic neighborhood dry during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The primary method of transportation between Algiers Point the more “major” parts of New Orleans is, at least for the time being, the ferry running from the foot of Canal Street to the Algiers terminal. In this era of never ending budget crises, terminating the ferry service between “The Point” and the “mainland” never seems to go off the table, but it seems that every time the idea comes up, it is shot down – at least so far. Pedestrians and cyclists ride the ferry free, and cars traveling into the city proper are charged a dollar while paying nothing to escape. Considering the unleashed insanity of Crescent City drivers, I suspect people would be happier plunking down their dollars to leave the city.

Until you see the high-rise buildings across the river peeking over the top of the levee, it’s easy to forget you’re less than a half-mile from the pulsating heart of New Orleans. The levee works to muffle most city noise. Beyond the bellowing of ships’ horns on the adjacent Mississippi River or the steam-driven tooting of an out-of-tune calliope atop the tourist sternwheeler Natchez, the neighborhood’s most common sounds are dogs barking and the peal of church bells.

Even though the community inside the levee is Kansas flat, it doesn’t feel that way due to tree-lined streets and a collection of residential styles that cause a constant nodding of visitors’ heads as they take in the panoply of architectural details, inviting porticoes, ornamented rooflines and vibrant colors of a bygone era. With a history squarely footed in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Algiers Point presents a mélange of homes ranging from cozy bungalows and Creole cottages to the occasional stately Victorian sandwiched into a line of traditional New Orleans “shotgun” houses.

The residents of Algiers Point are every bit as eclectic and diverse as the architecture. Our neighbors include two brothers who both work at the firehouse down the street, a food salesman who drives a fading car that’s little more than a rolling advertisement for Louisiana (Brand) Fish Fry, and a fellow who returned home after eight years in Hollywood to work in New Orleans’ burgeoning movie industry. There are architects and lawyers, of course, even a few television newscasters, but despite its recent gentrification, this is essentially a working class neighborhood and, to a great degree, it’s the wild spectrum of demographics that makes the neighborhood work.

Diagonally across Verret and Alix Streets from tout de suite stands a towering Catholic church and directly across the street is a triangular-shaped park that seems to provide a nirvana for pooches. In a community as dog-friendly as the Point, where before and after work dog walking provides the only real traffic congestion, it’s a common sight to see all breeds tethered to outdoor tables, lampposts or almost anything too heavy to be dragged away and buried, waiting patiently for their owners to emerge with carry-out boxes.

Within such an incongruous urban milieu, a community café like tout de suite may not only be appropriate but inevitable. More so than a corner tavern, tout de suite serves as the informal switchboard and chatter center for Algiers Point. The center of this information exchange is the back table with its ever-changing rotation of regulars, but the whole place is so small that casual eavesdropping and the sifting of harebrained rumor from certifiable fact is unavoidable.

The building in which tout de suite is housed is like a great many corner buildings in history-rich Algiers Point. At one point, it was probably a Mom-and-Pop grocery or a tavern, maybe a drugstore or any of the other type of small retail establishments whose trade area didn’t extend more than several blocks; it could have been any or all of those. The fixed awnings that wrap around the building’s two street facings are strung with incandescent lights, cover several gingham covered café tables and protect a hodgepodge of potted plants. During brutal summer months, the plants are occasionally misted like produce in a supermarket. A large bulletin board is covered with flyers, upcoming community event posters and homespun ads for neighborhood services.

The interior is as homey in a left-handedly attractive manner. When the place was being transformed from its previous incarnation in 2004, the tongue-in-groove woodwork walls were sanded down, but before every speck of paint was removed, the wise decision was made to polyurethane the walls -- paint remnants and all -- accentuating the building’s vintage provenance. The soft light from the large windows is assisted by discreet canister lights and accentuated by a pair of stained-glass transoms over the front window. In one corner is a console piano, upon which occasional weekend brunch-time musicians play. Quite often on Sundays, there’s a banjo player. The rest of the time WWOZ-FM, a volunteer operated station that seems to serve as the unofficial soundtrack for New Orleans, floats throughout the room.

Once you walk in and make your way to the self-service counter, chances are you’ll tell yourself that you’re in a pleasant enough café but you won’t have found many items surprising for a neighborhood coffee shop.

The food offered is by no means ambitious, the unexpectedly long menu (30+ items) dominated by breakfasts, panini and salads. What is truly surprising, however, is the obvious amount thought and attention to detail that has gone into both the ingredients and preparation of such a traditional menu. Parmignano Reggiano. Cold-pressed flax seed oil. Ciabatta buns. Cilantro pesto. Hardwood smoked bacon. Homemade honey-basil vinaigrette. It’s not the stuff of your average American neighborhood café, but then Algiers Point certainly can’t be called a cookie-cutter community.

In addition to the startlingly sophisticated dishes coming out of the micro-kitchen, there is always a selection of croissants, muffins and Danishes in a case by the register and a cabinet with a variety of generally healthy ready-to-eat cereals below the counter. There’s a nearby cooler full of fruit juices and soft drinks, but the drinks de rigueur are several blends of coffee and espresso. Beer and wine are not available for purchase.

If there’s one factoid that defines the ultimate appeal of tout de suite and also encapsulates life in this laidback village in the shadow of a great American city, it’s this: Nowhere within Algiers Point will you find a franchise food outlet, and I would imagine that were one to be announced it would be met with a level of enthusiasm equal to one greeting an announcement that one of this historical district’s picturesque blocks was going to be leveled to make room for a Wal-Mart.

All said, tout de suite seems to be an organic centerpiece of what many consider one of New Orleans’ most agreeable neighborhoods. So if it’s one of those sun-dappled mornings when all is right with the world and you happen to find yourself strolling the tree-lined streets as clocks spin backward to a gentler age, pat the handsome head of a happy-go-lucky pup, follow the church bells and settle into a place you’ll be disinclined to leave.

tout de suite

Neighborhood café

347 Verret Street

in historic Algiers Point

Open daily from 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

MasterCard, VISA and Discover accepted

No reservations

Telephone: (504) 362-2264

Website: www.toutdesuitecafe.com

1 comment:

  1. I want to be there. Now. As always, beautifully written!